Lucille Ball: a modern icon of comedy, a sitcom pioneer, the first woman to be a studio executive, and the first woman to be visibly pregnant on television. She’s also the subject of a new cabaret-style show, Everybody Loves Lucy, starring Elise McCann.
Written by McCann (South Pacific, Falsettos) and Richard Carroll, Everybody Loves Lucy is playing one more night at the Hayes before playing the festival rounds nationally, and it’s well worth seeing. Even the name is a fun play on Ball’s sitcom legacy, so from the start, you know you’re in good hands. The book is lively and McCann is fearless (she embraces Ball’s physical comedy with great gusto) and the music (musical direction by Nigel Ubrihien, who cameos as Desi) lands just right in the Hayes theatre space. The show is a light, bright, treat.
Everybody Loves Lucy takes us through the creation of the I Love Lucy show, housed in Desilu studios and a labor of love for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, a married couple who would have two children together, before the pressures of their career and the show ultimately saw their marriage ending and their show leaving the airwaves.
There’s an evocative unfolding of narrative journey and historic importance that’s placed gently, unobtrusively, between pratfalls and retro-themed jokes, and this is a lovely twist on the usual cabaret delivery. Instead of talking about how I Love Lucy changed the world, McCann shows us how it happened with her proxy, a housewife character who stands in for the audience, and the viewers of Ball’s show as it first aired. She finds a friend and role model in Lucy; she takes up work because Lucy can do it; she discovers a benchmark of independence she never knew about before. It’s hardly educational or treacly, though, because McCann and Carroll write always with comedy in mind. The beats are funny but warm. She slugs back drinks while meaning to fill her husband’s glass, and she talks about admiring Lucy’s work ethic. It’s a really strong marriage of both idea and laughs, and it’s evidence of the tight, impressive writing in the piece.
McCann has excellent timing, comic and otherwise, but here it’s the comic timing that’s most impressive. She seems to have a sense of space in her body; her carefully-flung arms and expressive face are studied and expert, but feel spontaneous; to generate a perfectly controlled silliness is difficult, and McCann does it with ease. Also with an intuitive sense of timing is director Helen Dallimore, who ushers scene changes quickly, but not too quickly; the scenes are generally anchored in a grounding sense of character, or emotion, or both, and Dallimore ensires that disguises that all the mechanics of changes and transitions are never overshadowing the show’s humor and heart.
That’s the thing that makes this show a success: balance. Lucy is hilarious, and McCann recreates her onstage ‘bits’ with marvellous abandon, but she’s given the Lucy character time to have feelings, to love her unborn child (McCann’s vocals are stunning here, understated and pure) or to be torn between work and success and her husband and family. It’s a complicated portrait, which is an impressive feat considering the show runs for about seventy minutes. In fact, all I wanted was for it to be longer.